Exclusive interview with author "Kristin Henning"


Kristin Henning is the Blume Professor of Law and Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law, where she supervises law students and represents youth accused of delinquency in the D.C. Superior Court.



 

For readers who are not be familiar with you and your work can you describe your career, background and education?

Most important, I am a youth advocate. I am also a Professor of Law and Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law. My law students and I represent children accused of delinquency in Washington, D.C. Before I joined the faculty at Georgetown, I was an attorney at the D.C. Public Defender Service, again specializing in the defense of children. I am passionate about eliminating racial disparities in the juvenile and criminal legal systems and have co-founded of a number of initiatives (in partnership with the Gault Center) to combat systemic injustice, including the Ambassadors for Racial Justice program and a Racial Justice Toolkit for youth defenders. I also train defenders and other state actors (judges, prosecutors, probation officers, etc.) across the country on the intersection of race, adolescence, and policing.

Can you briefly describe what your book “The Rage of Innocence” is about?

America’s obsession with policing and incarcerating Black America begins with Black children. While White youth are allowed to enjoy the privileges of adolescence to include physical safety, public affirmation, adventure, experimentation, and extended periods of social and academic freedom, Black youth are suspended and expelled from school; stopped, frisked and arrested; and sometimes even killed for doing what kids of all races do. Black children are criminalized for the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, the friends they sit with in the cafeteria, the parties they attend, and the socio-political causes they fight for! Even when White youth commit serious crime, we guarantee them due process and adopt rehabilitative responses. We treat Black youth as if they are beyond redemption and sentence them to lengthy sentences in adult prisons. Ultimately, The Rage of Innocence examines the long-term consequences of racism and trauma that Black children experience at the hands of police and their vigilante surrogates and explains how discriminatory and aggressive policing has socialized a generation of Black teenagers to fear the police.

Can you elaborate on the title?

The “rage of innocence” is the rage that every one of us should have any time any one child is deprived of the opportunity to be a child. But it is also that rage that Black children have when they are told over and over again that they are "criminal” and “deviant” and treated as if they are a threat. Like any healthy individual with an ounce of self-respect, Black children resist those labels.

Why did you feel it was important to publish this book now?

I have been representing children in the nation’s capital for 26 years and in that entire time, I have only represented 4 White children. That’s it. That would lead some readers to assume that there aren’t any White children in DC or that White children do not commit crimes, but neither of those would be true. Children of all races and classes engage in the same kind of impulsive, reactive, and peer-influenced behaviors that can be categorized as delinquent. I wrote this book because I want readers to “find themselves” in The Rage of Innocence—to say “I engaged in that same adolescent behavior and I never got arrested!” I also want readers to understand how much harm we are doing to Black children when we demonize them for doing what kids of all races and classes are allowed to do. We will continue to see more and more violence against Black youth if we don’t confront and re-write America’s irrational and manufactured fears of Black youth.

Is your book suitable for teens too?

Absolutely! I have been pleased by how well received the book has been with high school students. I have been “interviewed” by several youth groups and high school classes. Black students, in particular, tell me that the book really speaks to them and gives voice to the stress and anxiety they have experience when they feel targeted and mislabeled as a threat in their schools and in their community.

How much research was involved in writing this book and what was the most surprising discovery you made while writing it?

I did a ton of research for this book! But I worked hard to make sure this was not an academic text or law book. It is a book that anybody can read. It is full of stories about children I have represented in DC and stories about some children we all heard about in the news (Tamir Rice, Jeremiah Harvey, Jordan Edwards, Trayvon Martin and more). But I weave the research and data into the stories in plain everyday language to help readers understand that these stories are not just isolated anecdotes, but instead are representative of a much more pervasive problem than most people realize.

I learned so much in writing this book! I learned about the traumatic effects of policing on Black children. I learned more about the profound importance of recreation, play, and leisure for healthy adolescent development. And I learned about the evolution of police officers in the American school system. For a long time, I bought into the often-repeated narrative that we have police in schools because parents and teachers were afraid to send children to school after the mass shooting in Columbine, Colorado. But as I did research for The Rage of Innocence, I realized that police presence in schools was deeply tied to the civil rights era and the backlash against racial integration after Brown v. Board of Education. Yes, the federal government did increase funding for police in schools after the tragedy in Columbine, but the federal framework for funding school-based policing was established long before then and officers were already present in schools all across the country. After the shooting in Columbine, police were more likely to be sent to schools with a disproportionate population of Black and Brown students.

How do you feel about the reception of your book so far?

The time is right for a book like this. More people have been willing to engage in this difficult conversation about race and policing after the murder of George Floyd. So the reception has been good. People say they are learning a lot from the book and are interested in the ideas I offer for the way forward. People have been especially interested in the unique ways that policing impacts children.

What would you like readers to take away from “The Rage of Innocence”?

The bottom line is that we have to treat all children as children, including Black children. I want readers to understand that “policing” doesn’t just occur with officers in a blue uniform, but that all of us are responsible for the policing of Black children when we buy into the fears and stereotypes about Black youth and call police or otherwise criminalizes Black kids for just being kids. This book is for everyone who cares about improving the lives and opportunities of Black youth!



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